Legal

Holiday Parties Say a lot About Your Workplace Culture … for Good and for Bad

By Jon Hyman

Dec. 13, 2012

Last week I shared my thoughts on avoiding liability during your workplace holiday parties. Among the 7 tips I shared was:

Normal work rules and standards apply to holiday parties. As a subtle reminder, consider holding an anti-harassment refresher in anticipation of the party.

Shiner v. State Univ. of N.Y. (W.D.N.Y. 11/2/12) illustrates what can happen when a company ignores this advice and allows an office party to get out of hand.

Lesley Shiner worked as a clerk at the University at Buffalo Dental School. Dr. Jude Fabiano was the school’s Associate Dean and Steve Colombo its Director of Clinical Operations. Each year the school holds an annual Christmas party. Shiner attended the 2010 party despite her reservations about sexually inappropriate conduct and sexually explicit comments made by Colombo and Fabiano during the 2008 and 2009 parties.

As it turned out, Shiner should have listened to her inner voice and stayed home. In her lawsuit, she alleged that during the party Fabiano:

  • Fondled her breasts.
  • Inserted his tongue in her ear.
  • Chased her around a table.
  • Grabbed her by her neck and bent her over a table.
  • Pushed her face together with that of another female employee and told them to kiss, stated that he wanted some “girl on girl” action, and asked for the three of them to be together sexually.
  • Puller her on his lap and asked her to meet him somewhere after the party.
  • Pinched and squeezed her ribs when she resisted his advances.

Colombo encouraged and cheered Fabiano’s behavior. At one point during the party, Colombo grabbed Shiner’s hand and pulled her onto his lap, stating to Fabiano, “you might be the boss, but I have her now.”

All you need to know about the Shiner case is that, unsurprisingly, the court denied the school’s motion to dismiss.

This case, however, holds a deeper lesson about corporate culture and your workplace. If your company has a culture of condoning this type of behavior, no policy, and no amount of training, will render your holiday parties (or any workday, for that matter) safe. You need to decide what kind of company you want to be, and set the tone year-round. Then, when it comes time for the annual holiday party, you do not have to worry about an employee being bent over a table or asked for a threesome. And, if it happens, your employees will have confidence that your company will arrest the offending behavior quickly and severely.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Jon at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at JHyman@Wickenslaw.com.

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